In a city with tens of thousands of trees, the neighbors of Ardsley Park are worried about one tree in particular.
On Monday morning, neighbors woke up to find a colossal live oak tree in McCauley Park had lost one of its major limbs and revealed disease in the trunk.
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An outpouring of support has poured in online from neighbors recounting their memories with the tree and speculating on what can be done to save or commemorate it.
Cynthia Spencer is one of many Savannah natives who grew up in the shade of the McCauley Park oak tree.
A Legacy of Love at McCauley Oak
“I remember when I was a kid… going to sit there having picnics and playing with my brother when I was little,” Spencer said. “Seeing something like that disappear is like taking away a piece or piece of your life, your memories.”
When she was growing up and going through a tough time in her life, the living oak tree in McCauley Park was a place to sit and reflect. When she had a child, she took him to play in the park after his days at Charles Ellis Elementary.
Spencer said she and her husband only dated about a year before they got married – ‘when you know, you know’ – and all the time he was taking lunch breaks from work, they would meet under McCauley’s oak.
“We stole kisses under this tree, and we were going to have lunch and a picnic under this tree,” Spencer said. “It wasn’t even a question of where we were getting married. We knew.”
In 2018, Spencer and her husband got married under the long branches of the live oak tree in McCauley Park.
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And she is not alone in her deep love for the tree. Others recounted their childhoods climbing the branches of the tree, walking dogs in the shade, and Savannah City Alderman Nick Palumbo even had his wedding photos taken under the tree. .
Palumbo affectionately calls the living oak “Betty White”, something in the community “that is there before you and which you always hope will be there after you”. He compared it to the community losing a grandmother.
Can McCauley’s oak tree be saved?
When it comes to keeping a tree healthy in the Savannah Urban Forest, Savannah Tree Foundation program director Jake Henry said there are options.
Henry said that while limb shoring, using ground supports to support tree limbs, is culturally rare in the United States, that doesn’t mean it’s not an option to reduce the stress and the weight of the tree. The famous Angel Oak in Charleston has wooden supports, and local tree ordinances in Savannah do not explicitly prohibit them.
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“There are many arboriculture techniques to help reduce stress or the likelihood of tree failure, and I know the city practices a lot of them,” Henry said. “They really try to conserve the trees rather than having to remove them.”
This tree is an example of a variety of stressors a very old tree can experience in an urban forest, Henry said. Live oaks have extremely large root systems, as wide as their canopy, and in a small growing location they can struggle. Compaction from vehicles driving over the area and reflective heat from the asphalt, among other causes, can contribute to stress that shortens a tree’s lifespan.
“I always try to remind people, especially with live oaks, that they are living organisms,” Henry said. They are prone to pests, disease, and yes, death, just like anything else.
Outside the emergency room, but in intensive care
Palumbo likens the tree’s status to that of a hospital patient: McCauley’s beloved living oak is no longer in the ER, but it’s still in intensive care.
One sunny morning a few days after the limb fell, he pointed to the hole the limb had fallen from, saying it exposed rot and damage. Although he can speculate on the state of the rot, it is up to the city arborist to make a qualified analysis of the health of the tree.
“We are considering all eventualities,” he said.
Although the tree is highly valued by the community, he said the city is considering the risk of any other members falling and the health of the tree. He said the Parks and Trees Department preemptively pruned some smaller limbs out of an abundance of caution.
The live oak in question isn’t the only one in the park: Palumbo walked over to the tree’s ‘sister’ and gestured to where the bark of the lower branches was worn away by the children who played on it.
Although the loss of Betty White is significant, Palumbo knows that families will continue to return to this park regardless of the fate of the damaged tree.
If that tree can’t be saved, Palumbo said the community and city government are thinking of ways to honor the tree, like using its wood for benches to place in the park or to make tables out of its trees. “cookies”, horizontal slices of trunk, to auction them off and raise funds for the Park & Tree department.
The Department of Parks and Trees released a statement saying it is currently evaluating the tree. At this time, the tree is not in imminent danger. However, during the assessment of the tree, the city reminds residents not to cross the warning tape surrounding the tree.
Marisa Mecke is an environmental journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (912) 328-4411.